Apparently the best thing you can do is for your body is give it a good night’s sleep.
But a new study presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience shows how disrupting your sleep cycle can interfere with your health and cognitive function. (1) Researchers from Rockefeller University disrupted the circadian rhythms of mice by exposing them to 10 hours of light followed by 10 hours of darkness. After two months of this, the mice were in need of more than a little nap. They had difficulty learning. They were more impulsive. And they got fat, thanks in part to changes in appetite hormones and metabolism.
These changes all reflect a problem with one thing: self-regulation. Even at the most basic task of homeostasis-maintaining normal body temperature-these mice were messed up. One reason why: The researchers found changes in the animals’ medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most important for self-control. This area of the brain is especially sensitive to disruptions in sleep and diet.
This isn’t the first study to show that interrupting natural sleep cycles is harmful. A previous study (whose mouse participants were even more unfortunate) found that chronic jet lag can be fatal. (2) Uh, yikes. Suddenly my frequent flier miles are looking less appealing. Another study, this time with hamsters in the unfortunate role of the sleep-disrupted, found that altering natural circadian rhythms results in systemic organ disease. (3)
Plenty of other studies have found that the more common sleep problem-not enough-interferes with stress management, emotion regulation, learning, and willpower.